Axel Stordahl
Guitars Around The World!






In January 1963, famous arranger and trumpeter Axel Stordahl (1913–1963) comes up with his final Exotica record shortly before his death, but what a record it is! Well, it is not necessarily a splendid record when all is said and done, but it delineates a concept that is crystal clear to understand yet hard to manage in a timely manner. Enter Guitars Around The World!, an exclamation mark-carrying travelog of 12 tracks – one of them written by the arranger himself – released on Decca Records.


So what, then, is so great about the obvious idea of presenting the standard amount and same old kind of compositions on this album? Why is the injection of a lead guitar or two in each arrangement so astonishing? It is true that the idea itself is not worthy of the Mercury Prize, however, here comes the all-important twist: Stordahl manages to gather five famous guitarists in the studio in order to show their craftsmanship and prestidigitation. To make things even better, there are many textural and surface-related differences and varieties concerning these signature instruments, so a wealth of multifaceted sounds is a given. The guitarists on this album are none other than Laurindo Almeida, Howard Roberts, Alan Reuss, Fred Tavares and Joe Maphis, and from their respective vitas alone one can wager that Jazz, Country and Hawaiiana are swirling through the exotic dioramas wadded in strings, mallet instruments and percussion devices.


The Spanish guitar of Laurindo Almeida brings a common Easy Listening artifact to life, one which is not as frequently featured in dedicated Exotica albums as expected: Lady Of Spain. Originally envisioned by the quartet of writers Henry Tilsley, Robert Hargreaves, Stanley Damerell and Tolchard Evans, Señor Almeida is surrounded by lush Holiday violins and finds himself in a constant dialog with these most enchanting devices. The dry orange hue of the guitar resides in the foreground, is allowed both solo segues and pauses for contemplation. Vaya Con Dios then travels to Mexican shores. Again written by a quartet of writers, Bert Russell, Buddy Pepper, Inez James and Larry Russell, Laurindo Almeida’s seething guitar and the laid-back groove not only absorb the softest of all hi-hats and the hammock-friendly mélange of soft strings, they also evoke that kind of midday heat which is so benefiting for a little nap during off-hours. The strings wobble and drone cosmically, but due to their cleverly reduced luminosity, the arrangement never lifts off and remains bound to earth. A great capsule of dreaminess!


While Manos HadjidakisNever On Sunday sees Howard Roberts join Laurindo Almeida in a dazzlingly chintzy rendition full of clichéd violin exhilaration and Sicilian guitars, with only the galloping drums and occasional marimba droplets bringing in a faux-tropical breeze, Irving Berlin’s Sayonara offers a gig for guitarist Alan Reuss and is a much more delightful fleeting visit to – who would’ve thought? – Japan that is further ameliorated by a koto-like play style and superb guitar-vibe couples that remind of Exotica gold arrangements. The strings are muted, making this an insular composition that exudes that certain quartet sound. A huge hit!


Irving Berlin’s sheet music is featured once more with Russian Lullaby, and it is yet again Alan Reuss who is in the limelight. Naturally, the melancholy rises, but so does the wraithlike surrealism as delivered by the magnanimously verdured string washes. The banjo-esque play on the guitar unfortunately adds a curious bonfire mentality to the otherwise sophisticated ballroom scenery, but I suppose that it is these counterparts which are a weighty part of Exotica as well. The traditional Lonesome Road Blues rounds off side A. This hillbilly ride focuses on the saltatory plucking technique of Joe Maphis who brings both fire and convolution to this fast-paced Country tunnel vision. This one cannot be panned in its entirety, but it sure enough does not match the Exotica collector's hunting scheme.


Side B continues the travelog with material that is few and far between, presenting flashes of genius as well as audacious outbursts of stereotypes. Ary Barroso’s Brazil luckily belongs to the former category and places Laurindo Almeida in wonderfully wonky and bubbling Space-Age strings within a coppice of marimbas and plinking percussion devices, doing both the tropics and the beach sceneries justice that are connected to Barroso’s hymn. This one is a terrific keeper! Non Dimenticar is next, a permutation of a song written by Gino Redi and Jacques Prévert. A ballad at its core, even the periphery is illumined by strings of gratitude, with the sun-dappled chords of Alan Reuss adding rustic ruralism to the ethereal epithelium.


The traditional Greensleeves from Ireland accompanies Laurindo Almeida on his way through heftily nostalgic and winterly gardens. The guitar is much more liquid and moist, the strings aggrandize the majesty with every note. Merry Christmas! April In Portugal by Jimmy Kennedy and Raul Ferrão then kicks off a two-part featurette with guitarist Fred Tavares at its epicenter, bringing back the hazy mélange and wide vistas of Axel Stordahl’s Lure Of The Blue Mediterranean (1959). R. Alex Anderson’s Lovely Hula Hands then brings in a bit of Hapa Haole goodness to the album, you know the deal: one steel guitar, one backing ukulele, much sun-laden delight. Side B ends with a concoction of Axel Stordahl himself, a harbinger of the things to come at the end of the 60’s: Astro Guitar is anticipating the 101 StringsAstro-Sounds From Beyond The Year 2000 (1969) and throws Howard Roberts into the unexpectedly jazzy orbit supercharged with rotatory vibraphone spirals, helicoidal piano chords of euphony and an overall similarity tonality-wise to Irving Berlin’s afore-featured Sayonara. A somewhat energetic but soothing terminus.


The bad things about Guitars Around The World! I can immediately think of? Well, for one, Barney Kessel, Al Caiola and various other luminaries are not on board of coxswain Axel Stordahl’s ship that travels around the globe. Admittedly, it would have been too costly a feat to gather 12 different guitarists in the studio at the tightly set dates, so five out of 12 are already more than enough. The idea of a famous guitarist amid a string orchestra as well as varying textures is an obvious one, but surprisingly turns out to be neglected in the Exotica genre, and while there is a certain flavor of gimmickry attached to the idea, Axel Stordahl, his orchestra and partaking guitarists make the formulaic approach work.


Quality-wise, Guitars Around The World! is the famous mixed bag with a few stupefying artifacts on the one hand and saccharified missteps on the other hand. It has been the same with each and every of Stordahl’s albums, regardless of whether you only consider his choir-fueled Exotica works such as The Magic Islands Revisited (1961) or the many 50's heirlooms of a time Frank Sinatra relied on his arrangements. From the wonderfully reduced quartet sound that is poured into Sayonara and Astro Guitar over the Space-Age tropicana à la Brazil and April In Portugal to the more bucolic patterns of Lovely Hula Hands and Lonesome Road Blues, the whole LP is, at the end of the day, a good travelog, managing to captivate the positive stereotypes of a locale, country or concept. One has to wonder if Stordahl had continued to nurture the exotic vibes that increased throughout all of his 60’s albums, but this is, of course, a moot point. Guitars Around The World! is available on vinyl and reissued download versions, all of them with varying stock photographies.  


Exotica Review 358: Axel Stordahl – Guitars Around The World! (1963). Originally published on Jul. 12, 2014 at